Saturday 2014-06-07

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William Braxton Irvine

Irvine tries to break the writings of the Stoics down into practicable methods. Oddly, the main points read like a Promethean theft of Reinhold Niebuhr's virtues: instead of God granting us serenity, courage, and wisdom; we learn to make them ourselves.

I.e. we gain serenity as we practice acknowledging emotions, without letting them hijack our minds. By focusing on what we actually can control, the rewards of goals achieved feed directly back into our willpower, polishing and sharpening it until it becomes a severe blade of courage. And neither serenity nor lasting courage are possible without structuring time to reflect, learn, and recuperate.

Having stolen from the Gods, Prometheus was tortured. The funny thing is that his name means fore-thought (pro-methe), so he knows he's going to be tortured, yet he thieves anyway. What's left for us to decide is whether he was pained more by his conscience or by circumstance.

Such is the madness of men, he said, that they choose to be miserable when they have it in their power to be content.

Epictetus takes Seneca’s bedtime-meditation advice one step further: He suggests that as we go about our daily business, we should simultaneously play the roles of participant and spectator. We should, in other words, create within ourselves a Stoic observer
In particular, he will be careful to set internal rather than external goals. Thus, his goal in playing tennis will not be to win a match (something external, over which he has only partial control) but to play to the best of his ability in the match
Someone who is not tranquil—someone, that is, who is distracted by negative emotions such as anger or grief—might find it difficult to do what his reason tells him to do: His emotions will triumph over his intellect. This person might therefore become confused about what things are really good, consequently might fail to pursue them, and might, as a result, fail to attain virtue. Thus, for the Roman Stoics, the pursuit of virtue and the pursuit of tranquility are components of a virtuous circle—indeed, a doubly virtuous circle: The pursuit of virtue results in a degree of tranquility, which in turn makes it easier for us to pursue virtue.
Your primary desire, says Epictetus, should be your desire not to be frustrated by forming desires you won’t be able to fulfill. Your other desires should conform to this desire, and if they don’t, you should do your best to extinguish them. If you succeed in doing this, you will no longer experience anxiety about whether or not you will get what you want; nor will you experience disappointment on not getting what you want. Indeed, says Epictetus, you will become invincible: If you refuse to enter contests that you are capable of losing, you will never lose a contest.
This means that we can divide the category of things over which we don’t have complete control into two subcategories: things over which we have no control at all (such as whether the sun will rise tomorrow) and things over which we have some but not complete control (such as whether we win at tennis).
It is only natural, even for a Stoic, to experience grief after the death of a child. But to dwell on that death is a waste of time and emotions, inasmuch as the past cannot be changed.
At a banquet, Seneca was not seated in the place of honor he thought he deserved. Consequently, he spent the banquet angry at those who planned the seating and envious of those who had better seats than he did. His assessment of his behavior: “You lunatic, what difference does it make what part of the couch you put your weight on?”
On reading these and the other irritants Seneca lists, one is struck by how little human nature has changed in the past two millennia.
Indeed, a novice Stoic will have to summon up all his willpower to do such things. What Stoics discover, though, is that willpower is like muscle power: The more they exercise their muscles, the stronger they get, and the more they exercise their will, the stronger it gets.
When dealing with this sort of shallow individual, it does not make sense to become actually angry—doing so will likely spoil our day—but it might make sense, Seneca thinks, to feign anger.
In other words, we should display signs of grief without allowing ourselves to experience grief.
And although wealth can procure for us physical luxuries and various pleasures of the senses, it can never bring us contentment or banish our grief.